The notion of political union is as old as history, while the notion of political solidarity at home can be traced to colonial America.
The first popular effort toward a global union came in 1919 with Woodrow Wilson’s call to make world war “safe for democracy.” Wilson’s League of Nations failed from the beginning, but, in 1939, an American war correspondent, Clarence Streit, wrote Union Now: A Proposal for an Atlantic Union of the Free.
Streit urged that the democracies forge a single political unit against despotism (Nazis, Communists) while still maintaining sovereignty. He included the U.S., Britain, and parts of the Empire, France, Scandinavia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Initial reactions were favorable. The New York Times wrote that “some day, in the kind of world we live in, with space annihilated and interdependence between nations complete, something like Mr. Streit suggests will have to come to pass.”
None other than Winston Churchill himself suggested a variation on the same theme. His famous “Iron Curtain” speech, March 1946, may be the most important oration of modern times. But, buried within the speech was a hidden, but central, message.
Near the beginning, Churchill noted that “the crux of what I have travelled here to say” was a unification of the Anglo-American political culture. He then proposed a “fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples … a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.” Churchill went even further: “Eventually there may come, I feel eventually there will come, the principle of common citizenship.”
In 1949, the first, and only, trans-Atlantic unit was formed. NATO is a military alliance that includes Canada and the United States and was formed to thwart any possible invasion from Stalin and the Red Army.
Stalin died in 1953; the Red Army no longer exists. NATO now has thirty members and soon will include both Finland and Sweden. Even within the present Ukraine crisis, the chances of Putin’s Russian Army invading 32 countries are zero.
While NATO remains the only trans-Atlantic organization, Europe has formed unities of its own, primarily the Common Market (EEC), the Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), and the Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). The EU (European Union) has absorbed these (except Euratom) but, now, without Britain.
Trans-Atlantic relations have served both parties well, despite the lack of a formal political/cultural association. Yet NATO is over seventy, past the time when most people retire. The year 1949 is a quaint memory: Harry Truman was president, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump were three, and Ronald Reagan had just met Nancy Davis, while Barack Obama’s parents had yet even to meet.
In 1962, a team of scholars at the University of Pennsylvania’s Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) published Building the Atlantic World, which offered Streit’s and Churchill’s advice to develop a political unity that would embrace both sides of the ocean. That advice still remains on the table.
The end of the Cold War has witnessed a reversal of American designs on the global stage. Domestic priorities dominate, with challenges to the basic meaning of the country. Both Clinton’s “assertive multilateralism” and Obama’s “leading from behind” confirmed this reverse.
It is never too late. American foreign policy has always needed a “cause” to promote its momentum. World War I was “to make the world safe for democracy.” Then came FDR’s “Four Freedoms,” Truman’s doctrine for “free peoples everywhere,” Kennedy’s call to “ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man,” to Reagan’s “it’s morning again in America.”
Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again,” while inspirational rhetoric, is widely interpreted as either isolationist or overly nationalistic. In any case, it does not offer an expansive cause beyond the shorelines.
Yet, with just a single reference or a major speech, any American President has the authority to put the world on notice. With a declaration toward a “cause greater than ourselves,” he has the power to commit the country to a historic and global agenda, reminiscent of Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, and other global leaders.
NATO doesn’t need just to be ended; it needs to be expanded in creative and positive ways. It’s time for America to “build the Atlantic world.” It’s time for an American cause generic to the virtues inherent from the beginning but neglected amidst the domestic issues and ideologies of modern times.
If developed properly and diplomatically, this may be Joe Biden’s survival ticket. The idea itself is neither complicated nor confusing.
At the outset, the idea calls for nothing more than a global political “club” (as in “Concert of Europe”), a group dedicated to one, and only one, vision: political liberty. No military, no alliance, no wars, no crises. The group has a membership with “rules” for expansion. It exists not to “do” anything but to “represent” something. It may meet, but periodically, with rotating Chairs, one year Jamaica, the next Australia.
The idea is not just “timely,” it is “long overdue.” It also represents the best of America: the fulfillment of what Pastor Winthrop once said of a “City on a Hill.”
That was 1630.